Analysis / Union

Moreno & Martino explain the Union midfield

Photo: Paul Rudderow

We’re not the only ones who get it. I no longer feel alone. Neither should you.

Someone else understands Philadelphia Union’s midfield.

During Saturday’s Union-Red Bulls match, NBC analyst Kyle Martino perfectly summarized one Union midfielder’s entire season in a single comment.

I teared up. Sniffled. Sneezed. And felt a little less alone in the world as I watched the Union once again sit back, absorb pressure, cede possession, and fire out the occasional dangerous counterattack in another pragmatic, unattractive, occasionally maddening but ultimately successful outing.

The state of the Union midfield obsesses many Union fans, because the rest of the team is so damn good. Improve two spots in the midfield (and you know which ones), and this is a championship contender.

Martino nailed it. Finally, an outsider gets it. It took him two straight games of covering the Union to do so. The Union’s great TV analyst, Alejandro Moreno, sees the Union every week. He gets it too, I’ve found.

Here’s how Moreno and Martino explain the Union midfield.

“… he moves at the same speed the entire game ….”

“Too often, for the Philadelphia Union, Keon Daniel and Brian Carroll (sit) side by side when they have the ball, and it’s easy for one defender to just cut out those two. Yeah, they need Keon Daniel to get forward. He needs to be the one right underneath the forwards picking up the ball. Very talented player, skillful with the ball at his feet, but it seems like he moves at the same speed the entire game and just doesn’t give them enough offensively to be able to play in the hole and be expected to be a playmaker and create for this team.”

– Kyle Martino, Aug. 17

This is an accurate description of Daniel. For his critics and defenders, that should be enough. No more pretenses to the idea that the Union’s supposed 4-1-3-2 is anything but an empty bucket crossed with a 4-2-4. He’s not a bad player by any stretch, but neither is he a CAM for Philadelphia.

Cruz vs. Farfan

“(Danny) Cruz used a lot of energy tonight and hasn’t really been able to run at guys and get too much service in. So (Michael) Farfan’s more of a playmaker, more of a creator. Bring him in. (He) won’t play in a wide position, will sort of sit in with Keon Daniel and Brian Carroll.”

– Martino, Aug. 17

This less ambitious quote fits most games when Cruz starts and Farfan replaces him.

How do you fix the Union midfield, Alejandro?

“That’s a loaded question. Look. Ideally, you would like to have midfielders in the final third that provide you with a presence in the box. Also, you would like to have guys that are able to not only play sideways passes but are able to hit penetrating passes and eliminate lines of defenders.

Cruz on the run. (Photo: Paul Rudderow)

Cruz on the run. (Photo: Paul Rudderow)

“The Union at times turn away from those penetrating passes and look for the easier, more comfortable option. And there is nothing wrong with that because at times, I’ve also said that the Union lack possession. So you can’t have it both ways, right? Sometimes when you try to hit that penetrating pass, it’s a more high risk pass. But I also feel that the Union do a very good job of winning the ball in good spots, and there’s an opportunity there to hit that pass forward, try to take a change going forward, and most of the midfielders currently on the Union do not look to play that ball forward. And if they look for it, at times they turn away and try to find the easier pass or the most comfortable pass, the safe pass.

“The guys on the outside, if you’re going to have guys that you consider to be good one-on-one players out on the wing, this guy’s got to be able to provide you with seven, eight, nine crosses every game, and certainly, as you said, early in the season, you would get a game where those crosses would be there, and then you would get three games that those crosses wouldn’t be there. And so if you’re going to demand finishing from Conor Casey, if you’re going to demand finishing from Jack McInerney, Antoine Hoppenot, whoever the case may be, they also have to have the service. So I would say for the outside midfielders, it would be important once you get in a good position, then you got to deliver a quality ball, and then guys out of the middle of midfield, not only do they generate possession, which is important, but they also have to sprinkle in a penetrating pass that allows them to be dangerous higher up the field rather than keeping everything in front of the other team’s back four.”

Alejandro Moreno, June 27 interview on The Philly Soccer Show

Nothing has changed since Moreno said that.

Stats from Saturday: Danny Cruz completed four forward passes. Daniel touched the ball in the attacking third four times. This is routine.

Where does Le Toux belong, Alejandro?
Photo by Earl Gardner

Le Toux’s crosses and runs are key. (Photo: Earl Gardner)

“Sebastien gives you a quality of service that this team simply doesn’t have, and then he doesn’t do very well with his back to goal. If we go back to 2010, and I can talk to my relation with Sebastien on the field, I would play with my back to goal and then Sebastien had the freedom to go in behind and work the sidelines. That is something that he feels more comfortable doing. He’s given the freedom to run down the line. He’ll give you some work defensively that certainly will give you a presence down the right hand side where he’s going to be one touch, second touch is a cross in, and he’s also going to provide you with another option in the box if the ball’s coming in from the left hand side, he’s the kind of guy who can close into the far post. So yeah, I think Sebastien, whether he likes it or not, that’s where he’s best, and that’s where he benefits the team the most, is coming from the right hand side and providing the team with that quality service.”

–Moreno, June 27

Few know Le Toux’s style as well as Moreno, who paired with Le Toux as a target forward in 2010.

I don’t think Le Toux is a midfielder. Neither do those who watched him regularly last year in New York. But he is a fantastic passer who makes good runs, and Moreno understands his style as well as anyone. Union manager John Hackworth is doing a good job of gradually figuring out how best to play Le Toux with Conor Casey and Jack McInerney.

What about Michael Farfan, Alejandro?

“… there’s nobody more talented, in terms of pure soccer talent, than Michael Farfan in the Philadelphia Union. I’ve said that many times in the broadcast.

“And at times, I’ve been, I wouldn’t say critical of Michael Farfan, but I’d say that I expected more from Michael Farfan. I think he expects more out of himself as well. He is a guy that can be a difference maker for this team, and so the frustrating part is to see many times where there’s an opportunity to go for it, to take a chance, to take somebody one on one, to play a penetrating ball, and (instead) turn away from that and play backwards.

“That gives you a clear sign of somebody who’s struggling with confidence. And to struggle with confidence is very easily explained, and that is, you said it, the expectations ballooned out of proportion in terms of what was achieved last year and what was expected to be achieved this year. And once you don’t get off to a good start and (fail to gain) in any way, shape or form any rhythm early on in the season, in terms of their preseason and what Michael was doing on the field. So when you have high expectations and you’re not able to live up to those high expectations, now all of a sudden, doubt creeps in, and lack of confidence creeps in, and it’s very difficult then to get that momentum back.

Moreno: "There's nobody more talented, in terms of pure soccer talent, than Michael Farfan..." (Photo: Paul Rudderow)

Moreno: “There’s nobody more talented, in terms of pure soccer talent, than Michael Farfan…” (Photo: Paul Rudderow)

“He’s had trouble with injuries. He’s had trouble with continuity and consistency, and really in the end, that’s the most important thing. He hasn’t been a consistent player for this team. You can live with a guy who perhaps is not giving you an assist a game or not providing you with a presence in the box or whatever the case may be, as long as you get a consistent performance. You haven’t had that with Michael Farfan.

“And if I were him, I’d press the reset button. I’d say, well, let’s turn the page on what has gone on till now. Let me start off by completing a five-yard pass. And then once I complete that, can I take a man on. And once I take that man on, can I now look to take a shot on goal. And those small things during the game that you can build upon in small blocks, and once you put two or three blocks together, all of a sudden you got yourself a building. So you have to have the ability to turn the page on what has gone on so far, know that you’re a good player, and a good player’s not just a guy who does stepovers, by the way, and back heels. No, no. Impact the game. Influence the game in the final third, and be the kind of player not only that you expect to be of yourself, but that this team needs you to be in order to be truly competitive for the rest of the season.”

–Moreno, June 27

That’s spot on. Yes, it leaves out the fact that Farfan hasn’t played his most comfortable position (right midfield) nearly enough, but overall, it’s accurate.

Time to hit that reset button. Farfan is too good to be a bench player in a midfield this weak. In four years of following the Union, I haven’t seen another player as enjoyable to watch as Farfan when he’s on his game. I think he’ll work through it all. It’s just a matter of when.

59 Comments

  1. Thank you.

  2. However, we know this will do nothing.

    At the Chicago away match MONTHS ago Hack was called out on National TV for using Keon – nothing changed.

    And with our team 2 points out of 1st, nothing will. Hack has blinders on. All season – casual fans, blog writers – and yes, former players and national announcers have seen this. But yet nothing comes of it.

    My vision – yes we’ll make the playoffs – but go nowhere because of Hack’s stubbornness and refusal to put out the best players on the team.

    Yes, Keon runs at the same pace – LAZY and DISINTERESTED.

    • Lazy and disinterested? No. Definitely not. Conservative is the more appropriate word.

      • Exactly. Keon has been playing this way too long and with too much support from his coaches for it to be a matter of being lazy and disinterested. The way Keon plays is exactly what Hackworth wants out of him. He’s a different kind of player for Trinidad, and can do a lot more for them offensively, but our defensive shape depends on having them both defend heavily.

      • I think you’re exactly right bpmangan. The only way to explain the way Keon plays is that Hackworth wants him to play that way. That’s why, I feel, he struggles or doesn’t impact the game like it seems he should since that’s not his normal way of playing. There have been times however where he has done exactly what Hackworth seemingly wants to near perfection, and the team has been good. But I would love to see Hack take the reins off Keon and let him run, see what he can do. You could say I’m a dreamer . . .

      • Very good points, Brian and BPMangan.

  3. I said it before and will say it again, Moreno should be, and probably will be, a coach. He just sees the game so well.

    • Yeah, could be. Or he’ll end up being the best American soccer commentator there is (if he isn’t already). In some ways, he’s perfect for it. He sees the game so clearly, understands people, and is fluent in English and Spanish.

    • Agreed, he’s so enjoyable to listen to. Unfortunately, he’s so good that we’re probably going to lose him as our color guy very soon.

      • No way we keep him. There is too much soccer being broadcast now that couldn’t use his insight. The only thing I suspect that may keep him back is his accent. Big national broadcasters may see that as a deal breaker.

      • At least the Union are a stepping stone for national color broadcasters. First Martino, then Twellman, now Moreno. Gotten better every year. If only our player scouting was as good as our color commentating choices.

  4. Southside Johnny says:

    Amen, brothers and sisters…

  5. If only we could sign Freddy Adu!

  6. This is a very good summary of what we all see. While some critcize Hackworth for being “stubborn,” I think the problem is that there aren’t any other good options to the current system. Farfan has underwhelmed. Torres is too much of a defensive liability. Kleberson also a defensive liability unless he’s fully fit. Perhaps it is a bit of playing more scared and defensive, but that’s to be expected from a new coach with a lot of young players. In the end, you can’t really argue with the results. We are overachieving right now, so some credit should go to Hack. If Farfan and Jack get their groove back…look out, we could be a dark horse in the playoffs.

    • We could also like, you know, let those guys lay some games, to find out if they’re a defensive liability. Keon/Cruz have gotten 24 games (give or take) to prove to us that they have not been effective.
      .
      Also, we have 5 full time defenders, why can’t we have our CAM be a little more offense minded?

      • They have gotten some chances, and not shown much in them. Plus, that’s what training is for. Coaches at this level shouldn’t have to put a player into a game that much to know what they bring to the table. This isn’t high school.

      • I really don’t think that Brian Carroll is a good enough player anymore to count as a full time defender. Plus Sheannon and Fabinho have both been relied on heavily for offensive width. They’re two of the more attacking minded defenders in the league. Carroll fills those holes when they open up and Keon fills Carrolls hole all the time.

    • My problem is that we an assortment of spare parts and not an actual team. We have players like Daniels, Marfan, LeToux, Okugo, Gaddis playing either out of their proffered position or played in a way that does not best suit their abilities. On top of thatwe have players like Klebberson and Torres who are good enough to start or contribute to almost any team in the league but simply aren’t going to for the Union. So the question is going forward do we continue to keep putting round pegs into square holes and hope for the best. Or do we actually get players for the positions for Hackworths punt and pray system. I think the Unions success going forward has more to do than just replacing Cruz… though that would be a nice start.

      • Good point. That probably involves the FO to a large degree. All about the Benjamins!

      • The Chopper says:

        If Roger Torres was good enough to start on any team in the league, my guess is some team might have actually attempted to acquire him by now. He can’t even crack the Union 18.

        And there must have been a decent reason why Kleberson was not playing for a mediocre Brazilian side that was as eager to be rid of him as we were to be rid of Freddy Adu.

        Yes Torres and Klebberson are pretty players to watch, but maybe the coaching staff isn’t as dumb as we think and are not playing them because the better players on the roster are on the field.

      • I said start or contribute. Exact words, exact phrasing.
        And you could say a lot about Nowak but he wasn’t dumb either and he found a way to make Torres work

      • The Chopper says:

        Phrasing or not, there doesn’t seem to be much of a market for his contributions at the moment.

        Nowak may have found a way to get something out of him, but I think last year proved he did not always make the best personnel decisions.

        Maybe Hackworth is wrong about Roger. Time will tell. But I don’t see other GM’s lining up to take advantage of his mistake.

        What is certain is that a team coming off a dismal season with a somewhat barren cupboard and little financial resolve to improve the situation has taken points in 18 out of 25 games. The roster is improved, the salary cap is better for next year.

        The manager should be commended.

      • It’s still a bunch of spare parts competing in an underperforming division

      • …also you see no use for him? not in Toronto? or DC or anywhere? Doubt that.

      • About the east being an underperforming division- am I wrong in thinking that we have lost exactly once to a western conference team this year? Just LA, right? And we only have San Jose left

      • That doesn’t take away from the fact that if teams like KC and New York were putting away the point like they should there would be less room in the playoff hunt and less chance of winning the division.

  7. Great article. It’s nice to know that we’re all not crazy.

    While it’s easy to bash Hackworth, he must have legitimate reasons for playing the midfield that he does. Unfortunately, no one else (including me) have figured out what these reasons are.

    • I actually think Hackworth should be a Coach of the Year candidate. His midfield problems are the fly in the ointment.

      • The Chopper says:

        I agree Dan. I think he has found the way to get the most out of the roster he has. It’s not pretty but,it works.

        And yes the offensive flow sucks at times, but the team is solidifying defensively. And he probably doesn’t wish to sacrifice any defensive presence.

        And the one game where Kleberson did look good offensively was an LA game where the Union got wiped out.

  8. McMohansky says:

    Spot on spugger, spot on.
    Thanks for a great article that may calm fans’ apprehension this team is being completely mismanaged. Hack’s conservative approach may be unappealing, (especially after watching opening day of the EPL this past Saturday), but it makes sense and is getting results. Moreno and Martino certainly know more about the sport at the MLS level than most of us, and they are saying basically what we all see out there re individual players. I wonder who their starting XI would be.

  9. Nice points from our talking men, and a nice summary. I’d quibble, Dan, that my favorite in form player to watch on the Union was Danny Mwanga. Too bad we only got a few games of that.

  10. One other point in defense of Keon.
    .
    When he starts, we’ve earned 1.87 PPG
    When he doesn’t start, it’s 1.00 PPG
    When he doesn’t play, it’s 1.00 PPG
    .
    Clearly, it’s not ALL his fault.

    • 0 goals, 1 assist. Clearly it is not all his fault, but he also doesn’t belong in this current lineup and formation.

    • I think you have been skewed by so many people’s blind hatred of Keon, that in turn, you have begun to blindly defend him.
      .
      The guy is not an awful player by any means, and actually looks decent for the National team, but how can you argue after seeing him all year that he is the right player for THIS team at any position at this time?

      • He fits exactly what Hack wants and does better than any of the other options at it. I don’t think he’s the greatest player, but he’s definitely not the scapegoat everyone’s making him out to be. Suggesting that he be rated a 3 or 4 rather than a 2 isn’t blindly supporting him. I’m still critical of him, but I think everyone wants a different tactical approach and they’re blaming the player unfairly.

    • No, not all his fault at all. Keon is a good player. He’s terrific at maintaining possession. He’s just not a CAM. It’s a dead horse, but hearing Martino say it in the game made me think it was worth a column. (I write one every week. You always need SOMETHING to write about. ;) )

      • I know you’re not saying it’s all his fault (that was from a previous comments section). Your column is spot on, I just think we get carried away with our comments sometimes.

      • Agreed.

      • Southside Johnny says:

        It is CLEARLY not all Keon’s fault and he has repeatedly demonstrated that he is capable of playing the way WE think he should both here and with his national team. There is plenty of blame to be shared by the other starting mids – including BC – and the coaching staff. It’s a huge, ugly, mutant “fly in the ointment” as far as I am concerned.

      • I haven’t seen Keon’s national team play. How is he used there?

      • Definitely much more attacking and creative for T&T. I remember a few very good bursts of speed and incisive passes. Had a hat trick in a sloppy rain game earlier this year I believe.

      • I think we all need to start watching T&T games.

  11. It’s just my opinion, but it seems Hackworth views Cruz in the same light as McInerney, Okugo, and MacMath. They are going to start in order for them to progress, no matter whether they succeed or fail. But as in the old Sesame Street game, one of these things is not like the others.

  12. The optimist in me is hoping (praying) that Hackworth’s conservative approach is based on “righting the ship” this year. At times it’s been painful to watch his one dimensional approach of constantly attacking down the flanks, but we can’t argue the results.
    .
    Similar to the USMNT under Klinsmann, I hope that the Union build on this year’s strategy and expand the team’s philosophy next year. Hackworth can’t ignore the midfield and possession forever. This is wishful thinking, but it may require better personnel to achieve.
    .
    Farfan is certainly talented, but I get the sense that he doesn’t play with enough urgency. He can have a casual approach on the ball that gets him in trouble. Whether it is a hesitation that leads to a forced pass or a lackadaisical shot, he’s just a step off from where he needs to be. He’s still a very talented player, and when Hack has recently subbed him on the right he has shown off some of his ability.

  13. I’m pretty sure you called Le Toux a great passer…
    Other than that, good article

  14. Couple of comments on the previous 37 –
    Yes, Nowak seemed a bit cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, but he got an almost $1M (reportedly/rumored) for SLT who promptly did nothing last season. That is a business win.

    He traded Mwanga thinking he was a bust. Anyone think different now?

    He traded for Soumare, who we lamented being dealt away. Yes, he traded fan fave and all around good guy Danny Califf, who one season later has retired.

    These are the facts. And they are not in dispute.

    • Sorry, I just wanted to use that line from a Few Good Men.

      Also, maybe the reason no one has asked for Torres is how much he cost in AM$ to finalize his transfer (see:Le Toux,Seb.,reasons for trade). The U may simply have hung a price tag no one wants to touch, which if you’ll recall their approach to selling Adu doesn’t seem far fetched.

      I also don’t subscribe that making the playoffs is worthy of being happy about. 53% of the league makes them. Finishing 4th or 5th and losing a one game shot doesn’t smell like success in how ripe for the taking the East is. It smells like resting on the narrative that this team has over achieved.

      • also 90% of the time when you hear about a trade with the Union the players themselves initiated it.
        More trades have been done by agents with the Union front office.

  15. It seems as if Hackworth must be telling Keon to hold back. Or at least accepted this is what he’s capable of and is working around it. Daniels’ lack of committing in the final third is so obvious that if Hack wanted him higher he’d just have to tell him to get and stay higher. The stat in the article about four touches in the attacking third is telling. Seems the plan is to get balls in from Cruz and LeToux (+Williams and increasingly Fabhinio) for Jack and Casey. The Letoux part has worked for the most part. Cruz is the biggest disappointment for me. He uses his pace and determination to get behind the defense well, but just can’t seem to get the ball in properly or a shot off cleanly.

  16. ps – great article, thanks.

  17. We were lucky earlier in the season to be the beneficiary of Jac Macks late game heroics. He stole enough points for us early to allow other players to come into their own (like Casey) and to make Hack look like a great coach (and likely save his job).

    I see this team to be more on par talent wise with the revs, fire and crew. Right now we sit in third because we’ve played two more game than both the Impact and Dynamo (1 more than the revs and 2 more than the fire).

    I think it will be tight all the way to the end for this team to make the 5th spot and I don’t think we are good enough to go deep in the play offs (remember our Open Cup performance). Regardless of what happens, Hack will be praised and we’ll all be waiting to see what he rolls out next year since this year was a “building” year.

  18. Pingback: The Keon Daniel enigma: Are the Philadelphia Union winning games because of him or in spite of him? | The700Level

  19. Pingback: The Keon Daniel enigma: Are the Philadelphia Union winning games because of him or in spite of him? - USPORTT - Online | USPORTT – Online

  20. The Black Hand says:

    Hackworth’s shortcomings, and those of this club, were clearly evident a year ago. Our ownership is shit and it trickles down accordingly. Enjoy our quality players while we can, because this seems like it could go on for a while. 5-1…Jeeeezus Harold Christ We Suck So Much!!!!

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